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Yeats’ Lapis Lazuli as an Exploration of the Role of Art

William Butler Yeats articulates a variety of opinions concerning the arts in his poem Lapis Lazuli. As the poem begins the speaker appears to refute a definition of artistic purpose, but as the poem closes the speaker’s words illuminate a different reality, in which artistic purpose is re-evaluated and redefined. According to the poem, the purpose of art is founded in its ability to rise above tragedy in a reflective manner in order to reestablish hope and progress in a new era. The beautiful nature of art and transforming societies is founded in the rubble of destruction and devastation.

As the poem opens, the speaker critiques the purpose of art as overreaching and neglectful of reality. The blame for devastation is transferred from humanity to the corruption of art in society. According to the text, “if nothing drastic is done Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out.” The speaker believes that immediate action must be taken in order to prevent further wars and bombings from occurring. The gaiety of artists fails to motivate immediate action. It is fickle and wasteful. Art, in all its forms, is implemented into society to distract humanity from the realities that it faces. It is due to this disillusionment that wars occur in the first place. As society turns towards art, it turns against the truth, and fosters evil. Suffering and destruction are not faults of ideology or human nature, but direct consequences of the sickness that art inflicts upon the people it reaches.

Furthermore, art is depicted as something that is to blame for the failed full actualization of human suffering. Again, the speaker transfers blame from a fault of the human to a fault of artistic disciplines. After describing tragedy manifested in Shakespearean works, the speaker notes that following the close of a play “It [tragedy] cannot grow by an inch or an ounce.” Actors articulate stories, characters, and situations fraught with human tragedy, but at the end of every show or act, the curtain falls. The tragedy always comes to an end for all involved. The audience members need not bother themselves with the woes of the play, as the play is only applicable as it is played. Tragedy does not expand outside the show. This allows individuals to believe that tragedy is something false or temporary. The art informs the audience that suffering is not applicable or relevant to actual society, but only to art. Tragedy, like the art that presents it, is something falsely rendered for the pleasure of others. Therefore, it is right to blame art for the corruption of the human mind into believing that tragedy is not an aspect of reality that deserves credence or confrontation.

In addition to transferring blame from humanity to art, the speaker attempts to demonize the individuals that glorify the arts. Artists and actors in particular, are the clearest promoters of artistic expression. The speaker states that in theatrical productions “Gaiety [is] transfiguring all that dread.” The actors and their art, the gaiety, manipulate the truth of horrors and destruction to suggest an ease and joy amidst tragedy. Actors do not need to take a moment to be overcome by the tragedy they present with tears or frustration. They are able to continue through their lines with a sense of joy and passion. Terrifying and heart-wrenching depictions of life are presented, yet the art is able to twist the truth. In transfiguring the reality of suffering, they become the enemy. Artists work against their captive audiences in order to corrupt their mind and spirits. All the evil in the world is posed as joyful and easy by the actors who purposefully blind the innocent consumer. Artisans are crafty and manipulative; therefore, the message of ease in tragedy is one that is falsified and restrictive.

Despite the harsh critique that the speaker articulates in the beginning of the poem, a change of heart seems evident as the poem continues. Suddenly, artistic purpose is revered for its practical applications and installments of hope into society as it harmonizes and balances society with devastation. Art depicts beauty and joy from the depths of human suffering. A reflection of this same principle is noted in society as the speaker claims, “All things fall and are built again, and those that build them again are gay.” The gay, the artists, are now given credence for the renovation of society amidst tragedy. Human success and progression is posed as a cyclical process that depends on destruction. Artists play an integral role in this continual circle of suffering into reformation and back into destruction again. The gay, the joyous, are the individuals that see hope when progression appears impossible to everyone else. Art allows people to recognize the state of destruction in which they live and motivates them to rebuild and redefine the world they live in. Suffering will always exist, but with the help of artisans, hope can be manifested into action for a better tomorrow.

The speaker becomes increasingly supportive of the artistic purpose as he idealizes the art itself and its application to the concrete world. Imperfections that shape the world are viewed through a different lens as the speaker claims that “every discoloration of the stone, every accidental crack or dent, seems a water-course or an avalanche, or lofty slope where it still snows.” The flaws that define devastation and suffering are viewed in a new light thanks to the lapis lazuli stone and carving. The speaker investigates the perspective of the artist. Devastation and ruin are the breeding grounds for new thought the beauty of human nature to spring from. What was once viewed as a pitfall becomes the ideal situation to cultivate a better existence for all humanity. Art defines and articulates this message to the speaker. The scenic depiction in the stone, and the imperfections of the stone itself, help the speaker to realize the good among evil. Art is a tool in which humanity can realize, admit, and overcome tragedy. The flaws of the world, or the rock, become the ideal situation, because they allow for the imagination of beautiful possibilities.

The speaker settles on his newfound promotion of the artistic purpose as he articulates that art is practical to the human experience through its ability to transcend tragedy from ordinary experience. While viewing the scene on the rock, the speaker states “I delight to imagine them seated there; there, on the mountain and the sky.” The men in the scene are placed high above the horrors of reality. They are depicted in a place of no earthly measures. As the men sit in their heaven-like atmosphere they are able to view destruction for what it is. In removing themselves from the situation they are able to gain a new perspective and understanding of the truth. The lofty goal of detaching oneself from the immediate suffering in order to better understand and change the situation at hand seems impossible when state as such. One cannot feasibly imagine reflecting on destruction without reflecting on a personal agenda or woe. In placing the idea in a transcendent format, one can come to realize that the goal of reformation is not an easy or simple task. However, through the joy the transcendent reality brings to the men, it is clear that the difficulty of accepting a new perspective is worth the outcome of a bright future. The purpose of art is fulfilled as it proves that beauty and positive progress of the human spirit is ignited by the tragedies society faces each day.

The progression of the speaker’s opinion on artistic purpose is clear throughout the poem as contradictions highlight the arguments the speaker presents. Near the start of the poem the speaker describes an incident involving the art in which one is subject to “heaven blazing into the head.” Heaven, a place typically thought of as consumed with love and peace is contradicted with the combative word of blazing. The ideals of heaven are forcibly placed within the mind through the painful burning that artistic formation presents. This phrase is used as the speaker attempts to claim contempt with artisans. However, if the speaker was truly against everything that artists stood for, then he would not be able to recognize the heaven in their work. The text suggests that something peaceful and loving is cultivated by artists, even if it is brought about through fiery pain.

Additionally, as the speaker’s commentary on artistic purpose shifts a sense of misplaced emotions is articulated. The speaker argues that “I delight to imagine them seated there… on all the tragic scene they stare.” The delight that he feels is directly contradictory to description of the scene he reflects on. Tragedy and destruction are the state of the world that is evident to the Chinese men and the speaker. Yet, in the face of this tragedy the speaker articulates joy. The contradiction in his words proves that a shift in perspective takes place. A world that one would typically define as tragic now is given a glimmer of hope. The speaker is beginning to redefine the way he interprets the world through the aid of the art provided. Delight is logically paired with tragedy despite the opposing definitions they may appear to have.

In a final attempt to reconcile the contradictions the speaker has made with his own opinions and that of the world, he concludes the poem with “one asks for mournful melodies; accomplished fingers begin to play… Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.” Again, contradiction appears to be the root of the statement. The artist, the musician, effectively presents songs of tragedy and despair. The mournful music in turn results in the promise of hope and joy. The men, wise in their age, are able to recognize the cyclical nature of destruction and progression of the human spirit. The speaker, in describing this phenomenon, understands that amid sadness comes the birth of an improved era of being. So, while the state of the melody contradicts the state of the listeners, the speaker overcomes his aversion to the contradictory nature of life in order to better appreciate the role of artistic purpose in improving society.

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